A Few Words on Social Combat and the Like
In the midst of unapologetically ragging on Savage Worlds, I noted that one of the drawbacks of the system, in my mind, was the lack of Social Interaction rules in any significant form. It was only later that I realized that I was likely speaking some form of Greek to the average role-player.
It’s been my experience in most games that the first section that needs to be scrutinized in the system is the way that Combat is conducted. The flow of conflict is an important aspect of any game, as it determines how much time and effort needs to be devoted to resolving an encounter. If the system is filled with charts and derived numbers, the combat might be extremely detailed and realistic, but it’s going to take the better part of the night to deal with a single fight between reasonable sized groups. If the game is slanted towards tactics, there’s going to be a need to have map grids and miniatures to better visualize everything, else it’s all going to go awry. And if everything is pushed in a more story-driven direction, combat is likely going to focus on abstract narrative elements, leaving the damage tables and the grid maps completely out of the mix.
The amount of options a given system has for combat also factor into how the game is supposed to be run. A game like Savage Worlds tends towards fast and loose arbitration, where the player characters are generally expected to be able to win any given encounter without a great deal of worry. Exalted offers a rather detailed combat system, but it allows a fair amount of narrative freedom, which lets the godlike characters slide through harder encounters if they have a stylish reason to be able to pull off the maneuvers well enough. On the other end of the scale, you find yourself in systems like Call of Cthulhu, where the characters aren’t optimized for combat and the scale of the enemies simply dwarfs their capabilities. The emphasis in games like this shifts toward being able to think your way through a situation, rather than rush blindly into a fight. And given the source material, it only makes sense.
So how does the Social angle of things work into this?
A little bit of personal history, if you would. Much of my narrative GM’ing style comes from the games of the early to mid-90’s, when the miniatures-oriented game design of the early years started to be expanded. Whereas many of the early games were derived from miniatures combat (and therefore tended to be combat driven), the games of this era started working toward the idea that non-combat characters could have roles within the context of battle, even if they weren’t worth a damn swinging a sword or firing a gun.
For me, the eye-opener was Torg, where non-combat actions were rolled into combat through the use of the Drama Cards. If a character were to stand on the sidelines and taunt the villain, the distraction of their commentary had a concrete effect on the villain, making it easier for the other characters to be able to defeat him. This showed up in subsequent games, here and there, to the point that it started a sort of sub-system in some RPG’s, where there were additional rules for ‘Social Combat’ in other areas of the game.
The other notable aspect of Torg was that, because these rules were in place, a combat-focused character was still able to be defeated by other means. Even if they’d maxed out the requisite stats in a way that made it impossible for regular mooks to do real damage or even hit the character, they were still vulnerable to Mental and Social attacks that could incapacitate them. The best example of this ended up being the ridiculously powerful Tharkoldu Cyber Demons, who combined the unbalancing effects of cyberware with … well, being demons. They had extremely high physical stats, armor and spiritual powers. What they didn’t have was any way to cope with being taunted, to the point that a character with sufficient skill and luck could theoretically put them down for good with a well timed and deeply personal verbal assault.
Up to this point, a character was either built to be worth a damn in battle or built to be useful in the library. To have both was generally unthinkable and / or the realm of pure munchkinry. With Torg (and many of its descendants), it was possible to have a bookish character that could hold their own through their smarts or a social character that could use their persuasion in a wider venue of circumstances.
Exalted took this entire theory to its logical conclusion, putting together a system that paralleled physical combat by codifying social maneuvers in a similar manner. Where a duel between master swordsmen would entail a certain amount of circling and testing for weakness before striking at a vulnerable point, the Social Combat rules tried to put these same sorts of actions into play within the realm of conversation.
The problem was that it didn’t quite work, as written. Over the years, I’ve made a point of testing social builds in the various RPG’s that allow it, and while Exalted made a fine go of it, there were very specific problems. For one thing, it tended to abstract the flow of conversation to the point that actually using the rules while role-playing required the player and GM to pause in the midst of witty repartee and roll dice. In that way, it felt like the only real way that the Social Combat could be used would be in a completely abstracted way (“I’m going to verbally attack him, using my Investigate Skill to probe for weakness.” – “Roll your Manipulation and Investigate. If you get three or more successes, you’ve discovered his love for horse racing.”), and this idea struck directly against the more narrative aspects of Exalted, with its Stunt System. While it was an interesting idea overall, it honestly felt like there needed to be another pass of playtesting before releasing it into the wild. And considering that there’s a whole tree of Lunar Social Charms that take advantage of these rules, the unfinished nature allows the system to break entirely, handing a stupid amount of power over to competently built characters played by people who know what they’re doing.
Finally, there’s Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, which tries its damnedest to replicate the intrigues of the books in its Social Combat system. While I love Exalted in unnatural ways, I have to note that this is a system that has managed to do it correctly. The intrigues in ASOIAF are both simply designed and effective, as they can cause characters to act against their own best interests because they were seduced into a course of action by a skilled master of deception. The system has layers of complexity as needed, but compared to the vaguely disruptive ways in which Exalted handled it, it makes a lot more sense.
To my perspective, this is the way modern games are structured. When combat was all that mattered, that was the only focus that skills and attributes got. Over time, however, game design came to reflect the subtler nuances of the gamer palate, where talking to ones adversaries became less of an outlier and more of a commonplace act. Yeah, combat is still the core of any system, as there needs to be a mechanic of some sort to resolve conflict, be it physical or otherwise, and this often serves as the skill resolution system as well.
As such, the throwback nature of Savage Worlds continues to mystify me, as it presents itself as a modern game for the current generation of gamers, even while it ignores the innovations that have come about since the early days of gaming. It’s only made worse by the fact that Deadlands itself had built in enough variance that a Social character could easily hold his own in combat in that system. And that aspect of the game design was completely lost when the new system took hold, meaning that it had to have been a conscious decision.